Men in Feminism: Friend or Foe?

Emma Watson’s UN speech called men to join the feminist movement, stating that gender inequalities are a problem of us all. This however has sparked discussions within the feminist community, bringing up the topic of male feminism again. Can a man truly be a feminist? What are the implications of being a male feminist?

During the launch of the HeforShe campaign, Watson extended an invitation to men to join feminism. First, she explained to men why gender issues were their problem too, by addressing some situations where men are affected by the patriarchal system, especially focusing on gender roles: why men should be able to be sensitive, why men should have the same parental rights, etc. Secondly, she said that men should join the movement so “their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too”.  Although her intention was probably the best, this is a very problematic approach to feminism for several reasons.

Most men’s first contact with feminist thoughts comes from personal experience, not their own, but often friends or family members. For example, realizing that in their home, women are the ones doing all the chores while men relax in the sofa, or witnessing their female friends being catcalled. Becoming aware of this kind of situation is a great starting point, but it should not end here. A very common misconception is that men should be feminists because “it’s someone’s mother/daughter/girlfriend/etc.” Wrong. Men should advocate gender equality because women are human beings, period. Reducing us to our relationships with men is only perpetuating the misogyny we are fighting against.

First and foremost, feminism does not strictly need more men. Do not get me wrong, it would be really good to have some intersectionality in the discourse if men and women are fighting for the same thing. A common problem with men who label themselves feminists is that they try to subvert the speech to talk about themselves and their own problems, or instead they throw the “not all men” card.  Men should do their part by realizing that they are often part of the problem and, when they do, they are great allies. Patriarchy hurts us all, that is true, but overall it benefits men a lot more than it hurts them. That is why first of all male feminists should acknowledge their own privilege. Feminism is a space created by women for women, and it is not good to enter that safe space uninvited and to do what men have been doing to women throughout history: shutting us down and invalidating our experiences. Feminism is one of the only safe spaces and vehicles for women to voice their opinions, do not take that away from us. To give you a different example, I, a privileged white cis-woman, will not complain about how hard it is to be white among women of color,  even if I had had any bad personal experience, nor will I say that I understand what they have go through, even if I sympathize with them. Firstly, it is simply not the time and place, and secondly I have no experience being a woman of color. In the same way, men do not have experience being women – this is why some feminists prefer the term ‘ally‘ when it comes to men. Basically, males just have to accept that there are certain occasions where they should listen instead of talking, even if this is bothersome to some men.

And this takes us to the second problem: mansplaining. For those of you unfamiliar with the term:

“Mansplaining, a portmanteau of the words man and explaining, is the act of “a man condescendingly explain[ing] something to female listeners”. Lily Rothman of The Atlantic defines it as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman,” and Rebecca Solnit ascribes the phenomenon to a combination of “overconfidence and cluelessness” that some men display” (via wikipedia)

A third problem, related to the latter, happens when men try to challenge or even redefine what feminism is. This usually starts by the word itself. A lot of men feel uncomfortable with the label because they think it is deceiving, arguing that it sounds like an equivalent of sexism, putting women above men. Firstly, there is no such thing as inverted sexism the same way that there is no such thing as inverted racism. Secondly, the name has its reason to be. Although feminism’s main goal is to achieve gender equality, the movement is focused on females because when it started women suffered discrimination, marginalization, oppression, enslavement, eradication, and other violence. They were considered less than men, and sometimes, less than human.

“Feminism is called Feminism because it began as a socio-political movement to achieve gender equality for females and, through its own logic and rhetoric, therefore is a socio-political movement to achieve equality for all persons regardless of gender (or any other demographic characteristic)” (via Feminspire)

Changing the name to something else, such as egalitarianism, would practically eliminate female struggle from the equation and fail to recognize that women continue to be in the lower end, which would completely miss the point of the movement. Besides, some suggestions of alternative names, such the popular “humanist” are just plain wrong. Quoting my colleague (and male ally) Tiago: “humanism is the excuse that guilty men use when they do not want to lose their privilege”. Trust me, feminists would love it if feminism was not necessary anymore and we were all born equal, but unfortunately we are not quite there yet. This being said, being specific is not the same as being exclusive, feminists do want equality for everyone:

Saying that we can’t have feminism because we should only focus on general human rights is like saying we can’t have oncologists because some doctors are general practitioners. (via everyday feminism)

Finally, there are some men who use and abuse the label. In an unexpected turn of events, the words feminist and feminism are being used by men to escape accountability. For example, singer Robin Thicke, who has written and performed one of the most misogynistic songs of the last decade (“Blurred Lines”), not only denied the accusations saying all was made for art’s sake, and that he respects women above all, but he went as far as to say that the song was a feminist movement within itself.  Feminism is not a free jail card. So here is a tip for male feminists: practice it before you preach it. The personal is political.

Men’s role in feminist movements is a controversial one, no doubt. Generally speaking, men should participate in the feminist debate, but acknowledging first that their silence is necessary if that means that more women will be able to voice their opinion, and secondly, that although the realization of feminist goals affects them in a positive way, the movement is not about them.

So you identify as a feminist and you are a male: Congratulations! Here are some things you should know about feminist discussions, and a guide for some useful pointers about what being a male ally entails.

 

 

 

 

 

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